Flimsy red plastic cups in crisp arrangements and pools of the cheapest, most diluted swill imaginable — chances are, you’ve come across a game of beer pong. This ubiquitous drinking game, also known as Beirut, is marked by a burgeoning popularity amongst college students nationwide, as well as in the Elm City.
At Yale, beer pong dominates the fraternity scene. In dimly lit basements — amidst a humming box fan, thumping subwoofer and chorus of shouts — brothers at Yale frats such as Sigma Alpha Epsilon battle over a gummy pong table. Beer pong fosters a sense of camaraderie amongst its often boisterous players.
“Beer pong is a uniting force in the social scene at Yale,” Student Activities Committee member Chris McLaughry ’07 said. “People play with their best friends, complete strangers and everyone in between. Its very rare to see someone reject an invitation to step up to the table.”
But other Yalies said beer pong doesn’t dominate their social lives.
“Beer pong is only a kind of SAE or Beta late-night affair,” said Karla Martinez ’08, another member of the Student Activities Committee. “And it’s mainly the brothers who play. I don’t think girls play that often.”
A relatively new addition to the pantheon of college drinking games, beer pong was relatively unknown to Scott Johnston ’82, a co-founder of the Pierson Tuesday Night Club, and his classmates. Johnson said other drinking games were more popular during his college days.
Yet despite its growing popularity, surprisingly little is known about the history of the game itself. Even more ambiguous is the exact nature of beer pong, which is as mutable as a post-Toads blackout. Ultimately, each game is defined by its players and their unique interpretation of its rules.
Understanding the sport first requires an introduction to its nomenclature. Although the terms are used interchangeably by most, beer pong and Beirut can have distinct meanings. The main purported distinction between the two, according to the National Beer Pong League (www.nbpl.net), is that beer pong is played with paddles – like ping pong – and Beirut is not. The name Beirut is derived from the arc of the thrown ping pong ball, which resembles the trajectories of mortar shells lobbed on the capital of Lebanon during a civil war in the 1980s. Yet the alleged differences are far from universal. The NBPL website is careful in its differentiation, but students like Mark Larson ’07 do not take the rules as seriously.
“I’ve heard that beer pong is a separate game [from Beirut],” Larson said. “But I grew up on the term ‘beer pong'”.
Although there is no standard method of playing the game, there is some consensus about the general rules. Two teams of two players face off with the same number of cups — either six, 10 or 15, depending on preference — arranged in a triangle.
The goal of the game is to toss a ping-pong ball in the opposing team’s cups — filled well below the rim with beer — from across a table. If the ball makes it in, the opponent drinks the beer and takes the cup out of the triangle. Once all the cups have been eliminated from the other side of the table, the team wins. While seemingly simple, there are countless variations that keep the game interesting.
Table size varies greatly. Playing on an actual ping pong table rarely occurs. Any planar surface can be used. Some wily students have assembled tables — in grand MacGyver fashion — out of stolen Dramat advertising boards, often using chairs for support.
The type of table introduces new variables as well. If a longer table is used, teams are sometimes allowed to shoot while slightly leaning over the table. With shorter tables, players must throw the ball from behind the table and are not allowed to lean over it.
Although the rules are anything but uniform teams specify them before the start of play to avoid confusion. Even if an infraction is committed, the penalties are light and usually involve drinking beer from one’s own cup.
Yale tournaments systematically enforce such rules. Fraternity Zeta Psi, which hosts a reading week tournament, plays with the “cup shot” rule.
“After your opponent sinks a shot in one of your cups, you have to aim your next shot at the cup they just made,” Thomas Weigandt ’07 explained.
Although most tournaments at Yale do not involve money, pride is at stake at tournaments such as the Masters’ Tournament, which Sigma Nu holds during reading week. The winners garner bragging rights and possession of the Masters jackets until the next tournament.
Last spring, Weigandt, Larson, and Tom Moore ’07 collected the laurels at the Masters’ Tournament.
When asked if he had any advice for aspiring tournament competitors, Larson provided words of motivation.
“Perfect your shot, give it some character and add some personal touches, a special wind-up perhaps,” Larson said.
Academic analysis aside, it’s most important not to lose sight of the fact that beer pong is, after all, just a game. Yet in the Pabst-stained culture of college dorm life, pong students say it remains a pillar of social interaction in all party scenes.
“Beer pong is played all over the place — frats, suites, happy hours — basically, whenever you have crappy beer and time to spare,” Weigandt said. “I love beer pong and beer pong loves me.”
We’ll toast to that.